Former secondary school teacher John became embroiled in what Scotland Yard call ‘the biggest art fraud of the 20th century’. Following his release from prison, he now creates showstopping artworks inspired by the greatest artists in history. His legendary story has featured on BBC One's Fake or Fortune and inspired an upcoming feature film. His new collection is inspired by the American realist painter Edward Hopper.
In 1986, John Myatt placed a classified advert in the satirical British current affairs magazine Private Eye. ‘19th and 20th-century fakes for £200’ stated the ad, heralding the birth of what was initially a legitimate business. Producing paintings to order, John painted his way through 20th century art history, commissioned by a man known as ‘Professor John Drewe’. His materials were unorthodox, including household emulsion mixed with K-Y Jelly, yet the quality of his work led Christie’s to value one of his paintings at £25,000. This was the moment that the business stopped and the crime began.
Between 1986 and 1994, John faked as many as 200 works by artists like Marc Chagall and Alberto Giacometti, fooling collectors and experts at Christie's, Sotheby's and the Tate Modern alike. Many of these counterfeit works found their way into private collections and public institutions in the United Kingdom and abroad. Eventually the scheme was exposed by Scotland Yard, and Myatt was sentenced to a year in HM Prison Brixton for his role in this now-legendary art fraud.
Upon his release from prison, John was persuaded to pick up his brush again by the detective who arrested him. In recent years, he has emulated the style of legendary artists like Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Klee, Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh. Comparing himself to an actor immersing himself in a role, he says he climbs into the mind of his chosen artist to adopt, rather than copy, their technique. In a 2005 interview with the Guardian newspaper, John explained: “I try to get the artist’s work to hypnotise me. I also surround myself with lots of books. I like to know everything…where he was, what he was doing…when he was painting.”
Alongside television appearances on shows such as A Brush with Fame, Fame in the Frame, Fake! The Great Masterpiece Challenge and Fake or Fortune, John has worked with Oxford University, Cambridge University and the San Diego Museum of Art, and now advises the police on art fraud. A feature-length film about his incredible story is due to be released soon.
John’s studio is in his house and likes to start his day with a coffee before embarking on his work. He paints every day, spending around 30-35 hours per week in his studio. He has even been known to be hard at it at 3am in the morning! Experimentation is key to recreating the spectrum of effects favoured by different artists: John uses everything from paintbrushes to sponge rollers, spray guns and K-Y Jelly, with the latter creating a smooth finish for his paintings.
John says: “Using another artist’s work is a great opportunity to not just look passively at their art but engage with it and see how they’ve achieved their effects and techniques. I was successful because I wasn’t creating copies; it was new work in the style of a particular artist – which is much more fun. This way, you can put a bit of yourself into the process. For example, Monet would never use fluorescent colours, but using modern paints gives the work more bite. The original painting is a template and you end up putting it to one side to create new work."
To ‘age’ old paintings, John uses strong coffee or brown umber, which is a natural earth pigment. To give the impression of craquelure - a fine web of cracks in old paint - John has a specific way of layering varnishes to produce an ultra-quick cracking pattern. While any scientist analysing these paintings would spot that they’re made with modern materials, the point of a good fake is that it’s so convincing that no one will think to analyse it.
John adds: “I love the challenge of looking at a new artist, and I’ve enjoyed every single one I’ve emulated – from 1960s Modernism to 19th century Impressionism, I like it all. The Pre-Raphaelites created perhaps the most technically challenging pieces, with some taking up to 18 months to complete. It’s phenomenal, but a little bit too much like hard work!"
If you like reading about our artists' studios, don't miss our regular Studio Sessions feature in Fine Art Collector magazine. Catch up on previous issues here.
The 20th-century realist painter Edward Hopper is the latest artist to be reimagined by the infamous art forger. This collectible release includes some of the artist's best-known works, including 'Nighthawks'.
Showcasing the very best of our artworks, along with behind-the-scenes updates and interviews, the new issue of our Fine Art Collector magazine is a must-read!
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